Worship is a response. It is a response, with everything we are, to who God is and what he has done. This response comes from a variety of outlets because the vastness of who we are in light of who God is and what He has done is huge. We cannot put worship in a box or limit it’s boundaries to music or church services or praying or anything else. This response is a response that is connected to everything we do, with every aspect of our lives. We fully respond to God with the entirety of ourselves and our lives. It’s something we grow in, and it’s something we work at. It’s how we love God, and how we love our neighbors. Worship is diverse, innovative, creative, sacrificial and relevant. It is private and corporate. It encompasses both old and new, planning and spontaneity, mystery and rationality, vertical and horizontal, suffering and comfort, freedom and discipline, spirit and flesh. It is rooted in truth that teaches and provokes a response.
A Response to God
We must first realize that in order to respond accurately to something, we must know what we are responding to, and why. In order to respond we need to know about the God we worship- who He is and what he has done for us. We need to form a strong foundation of sound theology. What we think about God is the most important thought we will ever think because it will determine every aspect or our lives. The decisions we make, our attitude, our relationships, and our response all originate from what we think about God. That is our core value and our identity. This is part of how we carry out the first part in the great commandment in Matthew 22:37. We love God with our minds by knowing about Him, knowing about His word, studying and discussing His word in the pursuit of His truth, and we pursue that with our all. We learn about His characteristics, His story, His purpose, as well as our purpose. This enables us to have an accurate response to Him and an accurate lifestyle of worship. The deeper we go in our knowledge of God the deeper our worship will be, and the greatness of God is infinite. When we realize that God is the only thing worthy of glory, and the only reason we even exist is ultimately for His glory, then we start to realize how huge and how vast our worship is, and how it fits into every single aspect of our lives. It’s a much bigger picture than music or words alone can begin to express. Therefore, our worship services need to reflect the truth and depth of the God we worship and go past the surface of our “seeker friendly” services. In this way we can give the “seekers” what they are looking for- truth, depth, purpose, community, identity, etc. In the words of Augustine, we were made for God and our hearts are restless until we find Him.
A Response to Others
This brings us to the second part in the great commandment in Matthew, loving our neighbors. A big part of how we display our love for God is how we display love to others because our love for God is the foundation of our love for others. We live a life of self-denial and suffering, as Christ did in the ultimate sacrifice of himself on the cross (so that we can even have the privilege of a relationship with God in the first place). This is why Christ tells us in Luke 9:23 to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. Notice that self-denial and death through taking up our cross precedes following him. Worship is ultimately about death through self-denial (dying to self, dying to our idols). Therefore worship ought to kill us. Which is why Paul says what he says in Romans 12:1, namely that we are to be “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to the Lord. This is our spiritual act of worship.” Our whole life is a life of sacrifice and self-denial in an ultimate response to our Creator. Our self-denial and sacrifice for the sake of others is the greatest way in which we can display the love of God to our neighbors, both Christian and non-Christian. This is where we create genuine community in our worship and genuine care for our neighbors, and this plays a significant role in our corporate and congregational worship. What we do as a response to God and others will overflow to our congregations and therefore overflow into the world as we live out our true identity as the Church, the body of Christ, all working as one for a common goal of loving the world around us, for the glory of God.
Characteristics of Worship
We can identify authentic worship by looking for several characteristics. So what I want to do now is explain what I think are several of many characteristics of authentic worship.
Our response can come from a number of different outlets. The music we use in worship services can range anywhere from gospel to rock, old and new. It can also come from all kinds of different artwork in all forms. The different people and cultures that come together in worship paint a great picture of the way it will be in heaven, and a great picture of the diversity of God. We are not contained to a certain category of worship or a certain response to God. There are many different cultures whose worship looks very different than ours. Maybe this means we can have a mix of all the different forms of worship. Part of loving our neighbor is accepting their styles of worship whether or not they are the same as ours in style (given there is sound theology).
We serve a very creative God. Therefore our response to Him should also be creative. We can constantly find new ways in which to worship, whether it involves music or not. We can be creative and innovative in the way we live our lives and the way we display our love for God and others, or creative in artwork or anything we can call our response to God. Our music especially should be creative because it reflects God, and this is the outlet seen most in the American church. Worship music should be the most creative, distinct and well played music out there. After all, music was created by Him and for Him (Col. 1:16). We should not strive for anything less. There is complete freedom to explore the sea of possibilities that create different atmospheres of worship.
Worship is relevant to anyone’s lifestyle because we all worship something. Everybody lives their life with some kind of core set of values, even if those values are unproductive or don’t make sense. Worship is also relevant because we worship through every season of our lives, not just the good. There is a worshipful response to suffering in our lives and to seasons of tribulations. The book of Job is a great example of this. We can also look at Lamentations and a good portion of the Psalms that deal with frustrations of life and even with God, when we ask the big question of “why”?
We worship as a community as well as an individual. It starts with our personal lives and spills over into the lives of the people we do life with, as they spill over into us as well. We will sing together, serve together, pray together, grow together, learn together and simply hang out together. All of these things can be communal acts of worshiping together. Ephesians 5:19 describes this well- “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord…”
As I mentioned before, worship calls us to deny ourselves, to sacrifice our own desires for God and others. When we sacrifice for the sake of something, we give that something worth and value. This is how we show we value God and show that He is more worthy than anything that is of ourselves. To give worth to something is the essence of what worship is. We can look at Romans 12:1 again to see this concept- “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”
Worship requires something of us. It requires work and participation. If we fail to participate and interact in our worship we miss out on the benefits and purpose of it. We may participate physically by clapping our hands or singing or dancing. These are all physical responses. But the interaction also goes into a deeper level with our relationship to God. A relationship is a two way street. Interaction and participation brings us closer to God and sets the stage for change in our lives. We can participate significantly in worship by working and fulfilling the great commission. This is something we participate in with our lives. In this we grow as individuals, make disciples, and respond to God by spreading His gospel. It is crucial that we are in constant interaction with God through prayer, scripture reading and service. Without that, worship cannot change us and we cannot fulfill our purpose of living lives that glorify God.
Just like we need to have a solid foundation of what we worship, we need to know why we worship and be intentional in the way we love God and others. We intentionally reach out and build relationships with people and we intentionally make decisions that will ultimately aid the furthering of the Kingdom of Christ. Ultimately, we live lives that bring God glory intentionally and on purpose. In our corporate worship setting or formal worship service, there is also a great need to be intentional in what we do. The tools we use and songs we sing- everything leads us to God and His glory (we can include things such as lighting, sound, videos, media, the songs being sung, and any other source of technology often used here). Every idea brought up needs to be filtered through the purpose or goal of worship before being carried out. The questions that need to be asked here are a matter of what is gained and what is lost in using any aids or technology. If the gain outweighs the loss, then that given aid may be beneficial to our goal of a worship service. We need to be intentional with the way we present the fullness of God.
Worship can be challenging on several different levels. It is often a challenge to sing songs of praise when we are hurting or confused about what God may be doing in our lives. It challenges us by teaching us things about God that require our lifestyles to change. It challenges to think critically about the things of God (something that can be difficult to do in this age of technology where a lot of thinking is done for us). It challenges us to love others through our music and to not be selfish and sin only the songs we like pr the style we like, to be more diverse. It challenges us to live different, intentional lives of praise.
Worship teaches us. This is where we learn truths about God outside of a sermon. Worship teaches theology and theology teaches worship. Worship teaches us how to better respond with our lives because it covers every aspect of life (suffering, joy, purpose, etc.) and points to God. It looks to scripture for our response. A good background for this is Colossians 3:16- “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” This is why we need to know what we are worshiping- so that we can be wise with what we do and how we respond. This means the songs sung or prayers read go far beyond a feeling or emotion or any kind of style of music. They teach us theology. We choose songs intentionally for this purpose. Often hymns have more substance than a praise chorus, but both have their place in worship. It is not a question of “contemporary” or “traditional” (whatever those words mean today), it is what those two things each can teach us about God and how those things reflect who God is. The traditions and values of old, and the innovation and creativity of the new both play significant roles in our worship.
Teaching and healing in worship often have a lot in common. Usually when we learn something it is a process or maybe a series of events. Our recovery point is often our healing point as well. This is where we realize something new and our character is different because of it. And when our character is affected, our response is also affected. When we are wounded and defeated when we come into a worship setting, usually one of two things occurs: you have no desire to sing or respond because of your pain and/or frustration, bitterness, etc., and you therefore sit back and simply watch. Or you find yourself being nurtured by the songs or words and the truth being spoken through them and by the people around you. Hopefully when we come in wounded we can experience the latter. This is why it is crucial that we need not to focus on the happy and uplifting things about God, but also reflect on the sufferings that are guaranteed us in the Christian life. We should include occasional songs and prayers of lament, much like are found throughout Lamentations and the Psalms.
We are free to worship. And we can freely express ourselves in our response. So worship can turn out to be from many different outlets (singing, dancing, clapping, meditation, service, etc). But this freedom is not an invitation to act in such a manner that the freedom is being worshiped rather than God. If we choose to dance or jive, we must be careful that we don’t get caught up simply in the fun of it rather than why we move, and that we are not bringing attention to ourselves rather than God. True freedom comes with much discipline. Freedom without discipline is chaos. With discipline in worship, we can have a much more clear focus towards God when we express ourselves freely.
Based on truth
Our worship must be based on sound, truth-based theology. It is simply impossible to respond to God in our worship if we do not know who He is. We need to learn who He is, what He has done, how He acts, and what His attributes are. Our mind and intellect is a vital part of our response. We have to learn and continue to learn about Him. Even in learning and studying about God we are worshiping Him because He is worthy to be studied. The study of His word is crucial. The knowledge of God is an infinitely vast and challenging thing, yet is wonderful and satisfying and crucial to the Christian life. Once we know about God, we can filter what we do in our worship services through that knowledge.
Worship encompasses both old and new. It looks back to our past and its traditions as well as looks to our future and explores the new possibilities and new ways to worship. It ends the “worship wars” and instead asks better questions about the songs we sing. These questions go far beyond musical style or taste and beyond what simply makes us feel good. They instead are concerned with truth-based worship that glorifies God rather than a musical style or our comfort.
The worship service itself should never function as an evangelism tool. Many churches will have a musical style that is similar to popular culture and therefore let that draw people in. This is not the correct use of worship. Instead, we create a “seeker friendly” service by giving the seekers what they are looking for- truth. We give them the depth of the God we worship through our music and we take responsibility to them to share why we sing and do whatever it is we do. The people of the congregation are the evangelism tools, not the service. This is another way in which we love our neighbors. We do not want to train Christians to believe that all they need to do is invite someone to church and let the music do the rest. Marva Dawn talks about this in her book A Royale Waste of Time. Here is an excerpt:
“…‘Every congregation must have at least two styles of worship, two points o entry into the congregation.’ Wrong! ...worship is not the entry point; you are! I want 490 points of entry into the congregation if there are 490 members. If we confuse this, not every person in the pews recognizes that he or she is a vital part of the Christian community and it’s outreach to the world around us. Not only is the idea of taste as an entry point wrong biblically, but also it is extremely destructive of genuine community, fosters as independent view of the local congregation, and reduces worship simply to a matter of preferences instead of an entering into God’s presence in the company of the Church throughout space and time.”
I do believe that there needs to be planning in a worship service. God created order. We would often get nothing done if we gathered together and had no intention or plan. The beautiful thing about this is that we do not have to stick to a plan completely. The plan is merely a guideline and is tentative. To stick to the plan without any room for change would not leave any room for God to move if our plans did not match His. We must plan with intent, discernment, and willingness to change.
It is only rational to give worth to something greater than ourselves. It is rational that we follow scripture in order to serve God. But one of the things about God is that he is mysterious. We do not understand many of His attributes (i.e. eternal). We serve a supernatural God who is infinite in power and is able to do things beyond our imagination (even in worship). For this reason, however, He is greater than us. It is irrational that the King of the universe would come and die for sinners, but rational that we give our lives back to Him in response. Our worship recognizes the wonders of God and praises Him for it.
Worship is vertical in the respect that it is ultimately focused on God. Everything we do points to God. It is horizontal because it also involves our community and loving the people around us. Together we are all focused above and we encourage the world around us to do the same. We serve others in our congregation and build community, as well as serve those outside our congregations to build the Kingdom of Christ.
Worship is comfortable when you are surrounded by your peers and are singing songs of redemption or about the love of God. We often try and make worship even more comfortable by providing a comfortable place to sit and entertaining music. It is not that comfortable seating and good music are the problem, it is that we need to ask ourselves if those things are helping the worship experience or hindering it. I have often found that when we create a comfortable environment we often cater to the passive mindset much like the culture around us. Comfort goes far beyond the physical as well. Whenever we are challenged, we become uncomfortable. For example, singing about how great God is in the midst of suffering can certainly be a challenge. Singing a song of suffering can also create an uncomfortable room of people. This happens because we are so trained to run as far away from suffering as possible by surrounding ourselves with comforts rather than embracing the promise that we will suffer as Christians. When we suffer we are most like Christ (Luke 9:23).
The Worship Service
Keeping in mind everything previously stated, we can have a much clearer and intentional worship service. There is a large variety of songs we sing that are diverse in musical styles as well as lyrics. The lyrics are found in truth. The songs teach us and are vast in the ways in which they connect with people. They encompass a wide range of emotions and reflect the character of God. The musicians play them to their greatest ability and with creativity. We pray together as one and also for one another. Perhaps we read a communal prayer out loud as a congregation. We know how to pray for the people seen around us. The people around us are cared for both spiritually and physically. There is an order to the service that ultimately leads people in a response to God. We learn together, love together, grow together, and respond together and also to each other each time we congregate. We live life knowing we exist and live solely for the glory of the great triune God we worship, who gave His son for our ransom, and who called us by His grace to a response. Everything we do helps us to continue to respond to God in the vast number of different outlets we have, and ultimately with our entire lives. When we encounter even the smallest portion of who God is, we cannot help but live life in an awe-full response.